By Tony West
Tony West is the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division at the United States Department of Justice. For more information on protecting yourself from counterfeit products, visit The National Crime Prevention Council.
At this time of year, consumers often find the best deals online. But when it comes to medications sold online, you may not be getting what you paid for.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of drugs sold online through websites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit. This means they are designed and packaged to look exactly like medicine you know and trust — medicine which required years of research and development, and which went through a stringent approval process to ensure it is safe and effective. Criminal organizations manufacture these counterfeits, not in quality-controlled laboratories, but in hidden rooms with unsanitary conditions. And instead of patented ingredients, these meds can contain a haphazard mix of chemicals and fillers like highway paint, floor wax and boric acid — ingredients and doses that can actually harm you and your family.
That is why the Department of Justice is working hard to fight these criminal counterfeiters. Our department-wide Intellectual Property Task Force is coordinating enhanced domestic and international enforcement efforts. And within the department’s Civil Division, which I lead, we have formed a team of attorneys in our Consumer Protection Branch dedicated to handling counterfeit pharmaceutical cases, particularly those trafficked over the Internet.
And, because we can’t solve this problem without your help, last week, Attorney General Eric Holder helped launch a massive public education campaign — on TV and the radio, in newspapers and on blogs like this one — to ensure that fewer consumers become victims of intellectual property crimes in the first place.
So, before you buy any drugs online, here are a few tips to help you avoid counterfeit and potentially harmful products:
1. Don’t buy drugs from sites that sell prescription drugs without a prescription from your own physician.
2. Consult the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which maintains a list of accredited online pharmacies
3. If using an online pharmacy, make sure it has a legitimate brick-and-mortar street address, as well as a pharmacist on duty and available.
4. Discard the medication if it is of a different size or color, or if it has a different or odd-looking brand insignia from the medication you are used to taking.
5. Discard the medication if it dissolves differently or badly or has a strange or bitter taste that you are not accustomed to.
6. If you suspect a website is selling counterfeit meds, report it here.
7. And for more info on buying medicine on the Internet, go to fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates or nabp.net/programs/consumer-protection/buying-medicine-online/counterfeit-drugs/
By following these simple tips, you can help ensure that the medication your family buys online is what it claims to be.